Decodable books allow beginning readers to practice their phonics skills. They are books that start with one vowel sound—usually short a as in cat—and they continue to add one vowel sound per set. This allows a student’s knowledge to progress systematically or step-by-step.
Decodable books are key for strong reading skills, because they teach kids to read using the phonetic code. They steer kids away from poor reading practices like guessing, looking at pictures and trying to figure out words based only on the first letter.
Decodable books build a strong reading foundation; they are not guessable books. The child cannot predict which word will come next. In essence, decodable books allow kids to use their decoding skills to decipher the written code. As a result, young readers begin to break the code and learn transferable skills—their reading is not context-dependent; with decoding skills, young kids can read nearly anything anywhere. If a child can decode wag in a decodable book, she can decode wag out in the world too.
Decodable books teach kids decoding skills. In contrast, guessable books erroneously teach kids that reading is about memorizing.
This, we know as expert readers, is false: mindlessly regurgitating something we’ve memorized is not reading. We read texts we haven’t memorized. As readers, we aim to acquire new knowledge (like how to invest), skills (like how to read Python) or have an entertaining experience (like enjoy Sherlock Holmes).
We know reading does not involve memorizing texts. Yet, we hand K-2 students texts that use repetition: Mark likes to play with his big dog. Mark likes to play with his big giraffe stuffed animal. Mark likes to play with his big brother…etc. on and on and on. In addition, there are pictures that are intended to give the student those last words that aren’t repetitive… these types of repetitive, guessable books are NOT decodable books.
Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist who has studied reading and dyslexia for over three decades writes:
“And guessing words from context? Works occasionally but hopeless as a general strategy (From Language at the Speed of Sight, p. 138).”
Seidenberg outlines that guessing is a sign of a poor reader, not a good reader. Poor readers have difficulty decoding, so they lean on guessing as a crutch:
“Poor readers have more difficulty decoding—using phonological codes to recognize words-especially ones that are used less often. Because their decoding skills are poor, they have to rely more on guessing words from the context. This is an ineffective strategy because they have more difficulty reading the context words… (p. 130).”
A guessable book repeats the same phrase again and again and only changes out the last few words. Then, there’s a picture that allows the child to guess those last few words. On the other hand, decodable books teach kids to read sound-by-sound; they teach kids the most common phonetic units. With decodable books, kids have a chance to practice the skills that make a good reader:
“Good readers, in contrast, are better at decoding words and therefore less dependent on context. They do not have to rely on the inefficient strategy of predicting words from context…Instead of guessing which word will fit, a good reader rapidly identifies each word and integrates it with what has come before (Seidenberg, p. 131).”
Decodable books allow kids to gradually accumulate phonics knowledge.
Decodable books start with letter sounds and short a. The language is carefully crafted to gradually add sounds. A first decodable book will have short a sentences like the following:
Pam the cat can jam. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Then, the writer will add another vowel, like short i:
Pam the cat hit Tim.
Then, the child will learn to read short o words:
Mitt the dog sat on a big log.
Of course, decodable books are not just sentences. I’m just providing samples of decodable text language. Decodable books are stories with limited sound patterns. After all the 5 short vowels, kids will begin to learn consonant digraphs one at a time. A child might learn sh:
Shell had a big ship. She went on the ship to get some fish.
The child might learn th next:
Beth got a big cat. Beth and the cat went on a path.
The child will continue to learn new sounds until she can break all of the most common English sound units.
Decodable books get more sophisticated as new sounds are added.
Decodable books start really simple. Think about what it’s like to learn an instrument. You cannot play Beethoven right away. Instead, you have to learn how to play songs with just 2 or 3 notes. From there, you build your knowledge. Gradually, the songs become more sophisticated. Yes, one day you will play Beethoven, but it takes many years of practicing with simpler materials to get there.
This is what it’s like to learn to read. Kids need to practice with decodable books before they can read Frog and Toad, Captain Underpants, The Babysitter’s Club, Fudge, Letters from Algernon, Catcher and the Rye, The Scarlett Letter, and Hamlet. In K-2, kids learn phonics sounds so they can decode words in all subsequent years of schooling. Without a strong decoding foundation, kids will continue to flounder.
Check out our printable decodable books.
Reading Elephant has a printable phonics books library. Sounds are introduced one at a time. A student can start with Set 1 Book 1 and work their way through the series to learn to read. There are free samples in our online shop. Our phonics stories are great materials for your K-2 resource library.